‘It was a wake-up call:' Jews react to the Tree of Life Shooting

By Sofia Heller

A neighborhood united in prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue, serving that morning as a bright refuge from the Saturday Pittsburgh rain. The group’s prayers were soon cut silent, however, when gunshots hammered at the families and long-time friends. Light from the stained-glass windows above illuminated the blood below. The harmonies of the “Shema” and “Amidah” were replaced with the sounds of guttural screaming.

Approximately 600 miles away, in Middleton, Massachusetts, Emma Mair, 17, was working the morning shift at her local café. When Mair realized that the tragedy occurred in Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh where her Jewish friend lived and worshiped, she anxiously tried to determine whether her friend belonged to the Tree of Life synagogue and if she escaped that morning’s Shabbat services with her life. Her fingers started whirling across her screen, typing rapidly as tears welled in her eyes. Mair said she only released the breath she didn’t realize she was holding in after she confirmed that her friend was not one of the 11 people whose lives were taken Oct. 27.

“I shouldn’t have a gut reaction to text someone that I know to make sure that they’re okay [after service],” Mair said. “I shouldn’t have to do that. But it could have so easily been her.”

While Mair immediately felt horrified from merely seeing the headline, it wasn’t until she clicked on the Facebook link and read the article that her typical desensitization wore off to recognize the magnitude of the tragedy, she said.

As a Jew herself, Mair said she was exposed to lessons about the Holocaust from the time she was a child, making the notion of anti-Semitism seem abstract to her at an early age. However, in 6th grade, Mair’s classmate told her a joke that brought the history lessons to life, she said.

“A boy at my school asked me if I knew what the difference between Jews and pizza was,” Mair said. “I said no, and he said, ‘Pizza doesn’t scream when it gets put in the oven.’”

A few years later, Mair said a different classmate saluted her with “Heil, Hitler” as she sharpened her pencil during a standardized test, and a few weeks ago, students at her high school sprayed swastikas in the boys’ bathroom.

“Even seemingly small things, like doing a ‘Heil, Hitler’ at someone in the hallway, throwing pennies at someone or saying that someone’s a Jew in a really derogatory tone of voice, are really significant and certainly impact the human psyche,” Mair said. “I hate that I have grown accustomed to it. I hate that it doesn’t faze me anymore, but it doesn’t. Honestly, it’s just it’s a part of life. I see it and it upsets me, but it doesn’t stop me from functioning.”

While Mair has experienced anti-Semitism throughout her life, she said she has seen a noticeable rise in anti-Semitism in recent years.

Hate crimes against Jewish people in the United States rose 37 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the FBI’s annual hate crime statistics. Additionally, 60 percent of religious hate crimes in the United States in 2017 were directed at Jews, despite their making up only two percent of the American population.

Dorrit Corwin, a 17-year-old from Los Angeles, said she strongly believes that the rise in anti-Semitism is partially due to Trump’s election as president in 2016 and his subsequent actions in office.

“Though he might not himself be an avid anti-Semite, he is not at all encouraging of people who are different,” Corwin said. “People generalize Jews as being liberal democrats, which makes it easy for Trump supporters to hate Jews, not only for their religion but also for their political beliefs.”

Associate Director of Research at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Jewish Studies Saba Soomekh agreed that the increasing anti-Semitism generally comes from people who align with right-wing politics.

“Just in general, there’s been a rise in nationalism [recently] where anyone who people don’t see as the ‘white’ American does not fit in,” Soomekh said. “Certain people, and I’m not going to name names, have stoked the fire and allowed it to be okay in our everyday discourse. I think there is such a fear of the other, and you’re seeing it all over the world with nationalism.”

Conservatives are not the only ones at fault; people who align with left-wing politics add to anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions as well, Soomekh said.

“From the left perspective, you have the demonization of Israel, the demonization of Jews, the belief that Jews are subhuman and that Jews are responsible for all the [problems] in the world,” Soomekh said. “If you look at Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez and their defense of Louis Farrakhan and Linda Sarsour’s dehumanization of Jews, then you see it’s not just coming from the right; it’s also prevalent in the left.”

Despite these statistics, Helene Landau, who now lives in Los Angeles but grew up in Squirrel Hill, said she does not believe that anti-Semitism in the US has increased in her lifetime.

“My leaning is more conservative, so, therefore, I am more in agreement with things our current president has done, but I can’t say that I think there are [more hate crimes] now,” Landau said. “I think there have always been hate crimes. With social media and with the media in general, reporting things in the smallest, little hamlet across the country or around the world, things are reported and we’re aware of them now. But, I think they’ve always happened, and we just didn’t know it 20 or 30 years ago.”

However, Landau said she could have never imagined that such a tragedy would occur in her hometown.

“I felt absolutely felt safe in my synagogue growing up,” Landau said. “I never thought for a second that anything awful could happen there or anywhere around me. When I [found out] about the shooting, I was in total shock. I was in disbelief that, in the town I grew up in, something this horrendous could happen. It was a sad day.”

When she goes to services now, Landau said she still feels a semblance of safety; yet, simultaneously, the persistent violence against Jews throughout the world weighs on her.

“I think there is a subconscious prejudice that everybody has and no matter what we’re taught, how we’re raised or what happens in our lives, that always exists,” Landau said. “I think it’s always been there beneath the surface. People will always hate people for God knows what reason. Maybe they’ve had some reverses in their own life or perhaps their life didn’t go as planned and they need someone to blame, and the Jews have been historically scapegoats. It’s convenient to blame the Jews.”

For a group that makes up so little of the world population, Soomekh said she believes that the Jews have received a disproportionate amount of hate.

“Jews have always known that we are the other,” Soomekh said. “We have dealt with a lot of anti-Semitism. We’re Jews in the world. I think what the shooting showed the rest of the world is that Jews are just as susceptible to violence and racism toward them as other religious communities and other ethnicities and people are. It was a wake-up call to the Jewish community that in the most suburban, safe, open suburb of America where Jews have been successful for decades, this could happen, which shows us that it could happen anywhere and everywhere.”

Honestly, it’s just it’s a part of life. I see it and it upsets me, but it doesn’t stop me from functioning.
— Emma Mair

In the aftermath of the shooting, Mair said she hopes to see a rise in education about anti-Semitism, which she thinks will contribute to solving the issue.

“If you just let that moment go by without putting in any effort to solve the problem, then it’s going to stay the same,” Mair said. “I feel like the more that we talk about the problems, the more that people will think about it, and the more they will want to act or feel that they really don’t have a choice other than to act.”

Mair finds the lack of knowledge her peers have about the Holocaust especially troubling, she said.

“I know that there are schools, even in Massachusetts, which has the best schooling in the country, that just breezed over the Holocaust,” Mair said. “That’s not something you can just walk over. It’s a huge event in history. You have to take the time to delve into the subject and educate people. There are millennials walking around who don’t know what the Holocaust is. That blows my mind.”

Corwin, however, said she firmly believes that quelling anti-Semitism begins with civil discourse.

“Being able to understand others’ perspectives and respectfully discuss our differences opens up avenues for social change,” Corwin said. “Like many movements these days, it needs to start with young people––young Jews who care deeply about their

faith and are proud to be unapologetically Jewish, even in times like these.”

Corwin said the outpouring of support in response to the Tree of Life shooting has given her hope for the future of Jews in America.

“I think the Tree of Life shooting has interestingly created a really powerful and beautiful short-term effect both within and beyond the Jewish community,” Corwin said. “I think that while there is certainly a lot of sorrow and pain in especially the Jewish world right now, there is also an immense light of hope for the future. I hope these short-term effects manifest into long-term progress towards a more pluralistic and accepting attitude towards religion in America. I trust in my generation to strive towards, not simply religious tolerance, but religious celebration.”

Panorama Magazine